The Revered Lena Cockcroft is a retired minister and the first woman to be ordained by the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church in Ireland. She celebrated the 40th anniversary of her Ordination on January 9.
Q. Tell me about your background.
A. I was born on June 26, 1953, the youngest of three children of Charles Jardine and Lena Elizabeth (Betty) Baxter of Dromore, Co Down. My father owned the local Bleachworks, but after the linen industry died in the 1950s, he had to become a full-time farmer, for which he worked incredibly hard for the rest of his life. My brother, Charles, was severely diabetic from the age of three and a semi-invalid most of his life. My sister Jane gave up a promising career in nursing to help on the farm.
Q. What about your education and early ministry?
A. I was educated at Princess Gardens School in Finaghy, now Hunterhouse; Queen’s University (Bachelor of Library Studies) and Manchester University (Bachelor of Divinity). Between the latter, I was Assistant-in-Charge in Dromore Branch Library. I took many services as a lay preacher. This attracted me to ministry. On completion of my training in Manchester, I was called to Cairncastle and Glenarm, and a small congregation around Ballymoney and Coleraine. I served them for almost 35 years, helping to build a new church in the process. In retirement, I continue to look after Ballymoney. On August 26, 1991 I married the Rev Brian Cockcroft, a unitarian minister who came from England to take up churches on the Ards. Our immensely happy union is childless.
Q. How did you come to faith?
A. My mother’s maiden name was Rentoul, a well-known name for Presbyterian clergy. She was devout, with a high moral code and she had a deep influence on me. We attended my father’s church which was Non-Subscribing Presbyterian, with no signing of creeds required of any member, elder or minister. The denomination itself was never Unitarian but was tolerant of individuals with these beliefs. My father was one.
At school I joined the Scripture Union and became quite conservative as a teenager. For a while I found my own church a bit lacking, but I gradually came to appreciate its inclusiveness and the freedom of conscience it allowed. I have never been ashamed of it, often even proud. I have never been happy trying to convert another person.
Q. Have you ever had a gnawing doubt or a crisis of faith?
A. My faith has never really been challenged by adversity. Sometimes doubts arise from the Church’s story. To read how the early Church tied itself in knots, trying to explain the Trinity and then slaughtered those who disagreed, encourages doubts.
There are several reasons why younger generations reject formal religion — irrelevant, boring, but hypocritical as well. We preach a God of supreme love, but so many bad things happen without His intervention, especially to some of the loveliest people, and the churches are split with conflict. It’s not always a good advertisement. I can be angry with God when he fails to help in various tragedies and disasters. Sometimes I need the witness of those who have lived through such horror, to tell me how God was there and carried them through it.
Q. Are afraid of dying?
A. I fear dying more than death. I see death as a relief from pain. I am angry about the practice of “backdoor euthanasia”, whereby a patient, whose faculties are failing, is deprived of all food and drink until they die. Sitting with families and victims through these periods can be the hardest in ministry. This I do fear. I shy away from making definitive statements about the after-life. I simply don’t know. The operative word is “trust”. Death is darkness and we are called to trust God to guide us through it. I understand from the Bible that we shall see Him as he is, for we shall be like him. I like to think that a God of justice will provide some form of correction for those who have done great evil and recompense for those who have suffered, especially for others. But I don’t really believe in hellfire, not as traditionally portrayed.
Q. Would you be comfortable in stepping out from your own faith and learning from others?
A. Throughout my ministry I have supported inter-church worship. I am so proud to have been associated with the work done in reconciliation by Sisters Olcan and Catherine, of the Order of Cross and Passion. We had a wonderful clergy group in Cairncastle and Glenarm which met regularly for prayer, fellowship and reflection. The community was keen to take part in events we organised.
Q. Are the churches fulfilling their mission?
A. Wonderful work has been done by individuals of all denominations. I am less certain that the denominations have fulfilled their mission together as a unit. On a personal level, I think the church provides a lot of comfort and support, and on a community level there have been worthwhile projects, with Ray Davey’s Corrymeela, the jewel in the crown. In Northern Ireland, I think sadly the churches have tended to bolster people’s prejudices, rather than break them down. But I think, again, many people have encouraged them to do that.
Q. Where do you feel closest to God?
A. Location is not the major factor. There are feelings, atmosphere, presence or absence of others, words spoken, read, sung, silence. All these come together to make something like a perfect storm and there’s a sense of some presence beyond explanation. Also, God takes the initiative - we can’t manufacture his presence.
Q. Your favourite book, film and music?
A. The songs and poems of Percy French. The film Chariots of Fire. We saw Les Misérables on Broadway a week after the bombing of the Twin Towers. We were booked to visit the Towers on September 11 at 8:45 and postponed it for a week to officiate at a friend’s wedding
Q. The inscription on your gravestone?
A. Some words by Jan Struther, hymn writer, poet and creator of Mrs Miniver: “Bid then farewell to sleep, rise up and run”.
Q. Finally, any regrets?
A. No major regrets.